Speed Reads

Rest in peace

Trailblazing actress Cicely Tyson is dead at 96

Cicely Tyson, the award-winning actress whose long career was filled with memorable portrayals of strong and vibrant Black women, died Thursday. She was 96.

Tyson got her first major break at age 48, when she landed the role of a sharecropper's wife in Sounder, earning her critical acclaim and an Oscar nomination. She won two Emmys, including best lead actress in a drama, for her starring performance in the hit 1974 CBS TV movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and she won a third Emmy in 1994 for her supporting role in the CBS TV movie Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. She also earned Emmy nominations for playing the mother of LeVar Burton's Kunta Kinte in the famed 1977 TV miniseries Roots, Loretta Scott King in King, and other roles.

In 2013, at age 88, Tyson won a best leading actress Tony for The Trip to Bountiful. She was honored by the Kennedy Center in 2015 for a lifetime of boundary-breaking performances, awarded an honorary Oscar in 2018, and in 2016, President Barack Obama gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

Tyson was born in New York City's Harlem neighborhood in 1924 to immigrants from the Caribbean island Nevis. After they divorced when she was 11, she lived with her mother, a strict and religious woman who frowned upon her decision, after high school, to pursue acting. "My mother told me I could no longer live in her house because I was determined to be an actress," she said in a 1990 interview. "I said 'okay,' and I moved out."

Tyson was married to jazz legend Miles Davis from 1981 until 1988, and their relationship, which started in the 1960s, was by all accounts tumultuous. Davis is believed to have been her only husband. "Emphatic that her work was all that mattered, Ms. Tyson shielded the details of her private life," The Washington Post reports. "A list of survivors could not immediately be confirmed."

After playing prostitutes early in her career, Tyson vowed to be more selective. "I wait for roles — first, to be written for a woman, then, to be written for a Black woman," she told the Entertainment News Service in 1997. "And then I have the audacity to be selective about the kinds of roles I play. I've really got three strikes against me. So, aren't you amazed I'm still here?" Her memoir, Just As I Am, was published Tuesday.